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Jacob deGrom making a strong case for NL Rookie of the Year honors

Jacob deGrom of the Mets pitches in the

Jacob deGrom of the Mets pitches in the second inning against the Atlanta Braves at Citi Field on Tuesday, July 8, 2014. Credit: Jim McIsaac

The game plan called for plenty of fastballs, thrown inside, followed by soft stuff in the later innings. Against the Brewers, a lineup blessed with powerful free swingers, the Mets believed that challenging them would be the best policy.

Jacob deGrom, the rookie righthander, followed along until he noticed that the Brewers were having trouble catching up to his heater. By reading the late swings, he figured there was no reason to change.

So with the backing of batterymate Anthony Recker, deGrom threw fastballs "until they prove they can catch up to it." By the end of his Sunday afternoon, the college shortstop turned pro pitcher had added 6 1/3 shutout innings to his burgeoning NL Rookie of the Year resume.

"Even though he's a converted guy, he's got a feel for what it takes to get outs," Mets manager Terry Collins said

In a relatively thin field this season, Reds speedster Billy Hamilton appears to be the front-runner for NL Rookie of the Year.

Through 100 games, Hamilton was hitting .271. And though he boasted a relatively low .301 on-base percentage, Hamilton has played outstanding defense at a premium position, centerfield. And, of course, he has used his legs to swipe 41 bases in 57 tries entering last night's game.

But deGrom, 26, has made a compelling case for himself, though it has been far more understated than Hamilton's.

DeGrom (5-5) leads all NL rookies with 87 innings pitched and 83 strikeouts. Among those who have made at least 10 starts, deGrom's 2.79 ERA is the lowest.

"He's always flown under the radar -- still is," Collins said. "This guy's got numbers to match up with any rookie in the league and you never hear his name mentioned."

In some ways, part of deGrom's game has been his ability to sneak up on opponents and teammates alike. While Zack Wheeler, Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard have become the faces of the Mets' impressive young pitching depth -- examples of high-octane arms with premium fastballs -- deGrom had been viewed in a lower tier.

But this season, deGrom has been one of the hardest throwers in the National League. Wheeler ranks fourth (94.8 mph) in average fastball velocity among NL pitchers with at least 80 innings. DeGrom checks in not that far behind at 12th (93.3 mph).

"I thought I'd be lower than that," deGrom said. "I thought I'd be like 20th."

The Brewers also appeared to be surprised, swinging late at deGrom's fastball. Recker thought the late swings were a function of deception.

Listed at 6-4, 180 pounds, deGrom is a lanky figure on the mound, far from imposing. He owns a delivery to match -- slow, smooth and deliberate -- which doesn't reveal the actual velocity on his fastball.

"He works so calmly and slowly," Recker said. "Any time you get a pitcher out there that works real slow but then the ball comes out with some velocity, it really jumps on you."

That velocity -- combined with deGrom's ability to attack hitters -- makes for a dangerous combination.

"When you keep the ball down, and throw tons of strikes, more than likely you'll get good results," said Wheeler, who struggled with consistency last season as a rookie.

Yet outside of the Mets, deGrom has garnered little notice. The low profile seems to suit him just fine.

"It's an honor to be mentioned in that and it would be an awesome achievement," deGrom said of the Rookie of the Year award. "But I won't let that get into my head. If you start thinking about that stuff, you might start trying to do too much."

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